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Dave Roepke, Published August 27 2010

Bail set at $2 million in deadly Moorhead apartment fire

Bail was set at $2 million Thursday for Tracy Alan Zornes, a man accused of premeditating the murders of two people found dead at an apartment fire in Moorhead in February.

Zornes’ first appearance in Clay County District Court came the day after a grand jury handed down a six-count indictment on two charges each of first-degree and second-degree murder as well as charges of first-degree arson and theft of a motor vehicle.

The 38-year-old Zornes is accused of killing Megan Joy Londo and John Phillip Cadotte, whose bodies were found on Feb. 19 in a lower unit of a three-apartment building at 901 9th Ave. S.

Zornes, 38, of Naytahwaush, Minn., was named as a “person of interest” just three days after the fire, but police explicitly were not referring to him as a suspect in the killings. He was arrested on three unrelated warrants March 4 after a 10-day manhunt and is being held in the Becker County jail on a burglary charge from 2007.

The six-month wait was a trying period, but knowing Zornes has been charged is a relief, family members of Londo said.

“He’s going to hell. He’ll never get away from that,” said Natalie Suleiman, a first cousin of Londo. “He could live in prison for 50 years, but he’ll still have to answer to God.”

A first-degree murder conviction is punishable by life in prison. The maximum is 40 years for second-degree murder.

Zornes had several apparent supporters at the Thursday hearing, some of them quietly sobbing as Judge Michael Kirk read the charges. Supporters approached after the hearing declined to comment.

Danette McCradie, also a cousin of Londo’s, said the family has been concerned it has taken six months to files charges in the deaths.

“There’s a lot of hard feelings,” she said.

Because the proceedings of a grand jury are secret, prosecutors didn’t release any new details about the investigation. A grand jury indictment is required in Minnesota to file a charge of first-degree murder.

“That’s it for now,” Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said.

Authorities haven’t said what Zornes’ motive might have been, how he’s linked to the victims, what sort of evidence connects him to the deaths or even how the two victims died.

The victims didn’t know each other well other than sharing a common friend, who was the tenant of the torched apartment where they were found. Cadotte, 20, had been living with his mom in Moorhead. Londo, a 25-year-old mother of two boys, was from Naytahwaush and was in the process of moving to Moorhead.

Londo’s parents have said they didn’t know Zornes, and they don’t think Londo did, either. Attempts to contact Cadotte’s family have been unsuccessful.

Criminal charges usually are filed with a complaint outlining some evidence in support of the allegations, but the charges Zornes now faces spring from the grand jury indictment instead of a complaint. An indictment with little or no information on the investigation is common in federal cases but rare at the state level.

The tight-lipped tactic is appropriate in the double homicide case because the investigation is ongoing, Melton said.

“It’s the right way to look at the case,” he said.

In several murder cases in Clay County in recent years, the prosecution filed a second-degree charge by complaint before a grand jury was convened to mull a first-degree count.

To take a recent example of a still-pending Clay case, a charge of second-degree murder was filed on June 11, 2009, against Clarence Burcham, the man accused in the 1993 fatal strangling of Sharon Stafford. About three months later, a grand jury indicted him on a first-degree murder charge.

The Burcham and Zornes cases called for differing approaches in part because the Burcham investigation was older and hence less sensitive, Melton said.

Zornes has a criminal record including 6½ years in federal prison for possessing stolen explosives and Minnesota convictions for aggravated robbery, theft of a firearm, burglary, assault, fleeing police and escaping from custody.

In recommending bail of $2 million cash or bond, Chief Assistant Clay County Attorney Heidi Davies said Zornes was a significant flight risk and a threat to public safety. She said his family and friends gave “considerable help” in hiding him during the manhunt earlier this year.

Defense attorney Kenneth Kludt urged Kirk to set bail at a level that could plausibly be posted, though he didn’t request a specific amount. He noted Zornes has made court dates in the past and said he’s a father of four who’s lived in the region his entire life.

“There’s a presumption of innocence,” Kludt said. “Two million dollars will assure this man will never get out of jail.”

The car-theft charge may be linked to a Honda Civic Cadotte bought Feb. 1 at All City Auto in Fargo. Police asked the car dealer if the vehicle, which investigators said was missing, had been repossessed. It hadn’t.

The next hearing in the murder case is set for Sept. 9. The next hearing in the Becker County burglary case is on Sept. 29.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535